Richmond police chief calls for ordinance changes to address illegal fireworks

a digital media manager at CoBiz Richmond
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French (Photo by Mike Kinney)

Anticipating there would be ample illegal fireworks activity during the Independence Day weekend, the Richmond Police Department sent out a special detail of 16 officers to address issues. But Richmond police Chief Bisa French said the activity was so rampant that it could not have been stopped if she’d had her entire department on the clock.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Chief French provided a recap of the illegal fireworks onslaught over the weekend as well as a request for ordinance changes that she says could help her department better address the problem. Her statement on the issue follows:

“I personally chose to work [on July 4] because we have been short staffed and I wanted to make sure I could impact a problem, because I also receive numerous complaints and emails just like you all do. I actually wasn’t prepared for what I encountered on Fourth of July. We have a team of 16 officers that worked a special detail to address the illegal fireworks and related calls. And I can tell you that we would have not been able to stop all the fireworks if I had the entire department working.

There were parties all over the city, some with literally hundreds of party-goers in attendance. There was a complete disregard for the law as it related to fireworks, and willful defiance of our orders to not engage in illegal fireworks activity. Several times we would roll up on a crowd and see people lighting off fireworks, and the crowd would emerge into the middle of the street to stop us from getting to the person that was lighting the fireworks. There were may lookouts on the corners that also prevented us from seeing who was actually lighting the fireworks, and if you don’t know the law in our ordinance requires that we actually on-view the people setting off fireworks in order for us to give a citation, or be in possession of the fireworks, but we have lookouts out there and people know that we are coming, then nobody of course when we come through have possession of fireworks or is lighting them.

From 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Fourth of July into the Fifth of July, our dispatch center processed 877 calls. Fireworks alone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., there were 307 calls. In addition to dealing with the fireworks calls and noise complaints and parties complaints, we also assisted the fire department in several different fires around the city. One particular fire, there were 200 party-goers in the middle of the street preventing the fire trucks from accessing to the fire, which took a significant amount of our resources to respond and clear the streets so that the firefighters could get through.

In addition to dealing with the fireworks, a sideshow with about 50 vehicles appeared in North Richmond. We had to go to various locations to prevent sideshow activity throughout the city. We were able to issue four citations, I know that’s not a lot. And we responded to six shots-fired calls in addition to the fireworks calls. We confiscated about 50 pounds of fireworks.

So this has been an ongoing problem, if you look at the history over the last seven-plus years, the calls for service for fireworks has increased year after year. I’m hoping that next year we can do something a little bit different. I know that Mayor [Tom] Butt is proposing some additions to our ordinance which I think will help, at least provide some kind of deterrent for the community to not engage in illegal firework activity. Right now the fines are minimal. It is difficult to enforce the ordinance and law as it is written. But there are some things other cities are doing, like social host ordinances, that will allow us to issue fines after the fact and work with code enforcement at the fire department to address illegal activity, because the police department cannot address this on our own.”